Angry at the Boss

Your boss is really irritating you. He plays favourites. He picks on you for trivial things and he’s really demanding of you. You steam silently. You’d really like to give him a piece of your mind.

Then you reflect a bit. How will he take it? You saw that time he retaliated against another employee who tried to talk to him about what was bothering her. And it wasn’t pretty. Perhaps confronting him may yield unappealing assignments,.or stop you on the advancement track.

After thinking it over, you decide not to bother. It’s not worth the risk, you figure. In fact, the problem’s really no big deal.

But, failing to talk to your boss about something that’s bothering you is a big deal, and unresolved issues left to fester can turn into real problems in workplaces.

It’s the reality of organizational life that bosses are more powerful than subordinates. The dynamic causes difficulty communicating when conflicts arise. Inevitably, there will be a difference of opinion between bosses and staff. Each will hold different views, have different goals and ways of achieving them and these sometimes are at cross purposes.

There’s no doubt: settling differences with one’s boss is a tricky, delicate business.

Researchers Gerben Van Kleef at the University of Amsterdam and Stephane Cote of the University of Toronto conducted a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology about the expression of anger between people in authority and their subordinates. They observed that subordinates must take their position into account when they consider sharing angry feelings with superiors. It appears that staff risk being ignored if their boss thinks the anger is unwarranted, or worse, retaliated against by an angry supervisor.

Staff do not appear to benefit from angrily expressing a problem or dissatisfaction to their boss. Even when the boss might think the anger is warranted, he or she may tend to ignore the employee’s concern if it’s expressed with anger. The researchers recommend that staff consider different ways to talk to their bosses about problems rather than use anger.

While staff may not benefit from getting mad at the boss, the opposite is true for the boss. The researchers note that supervisors who get angry with staff net compliant employees. In the short term, bosses who express anger or retaliate get staff’s attention and cooperation, although this may not be in the organization or staff’s best interests.

Bully bosses are somewhat of a different story. They use abusive supervision and the built-in power differential between staff and superiors to ensure compliance. However, when the main difficulty is power inequity between staff and superiors, as opposed to bully bosses, there is recourse. While handling a bully boss may require organizational assistance such as human resources or union intervention, dealing with a boss who irritates you may be easier. Staff can find different ways of broaching difficult topics with the boss that don’t employ anger. The following steps may help:

Step 1: Identify the Issue.

View your situation with your boss as a business problem versus a personal affront. Look at how you could do a better job if the boss’s behaviour or approach changed. What effect would this change have on your performance on the job? For example, you may find your boss checks your work and doesn’t seem to trust you. The effect is to undermine your confidence and you find yourself putting off completing tasks because you figure your boss will re-do it anyway. This way, nothing seems to leave your desk in a timely fashion.

Step 2: Identify Several Possible Solutions.

What changes could be made to enhance your job performance? Consider all the possible solutions to the business problem you have identified. The idea is to think about suggestions you could make to your boss to remedy the situation. For example, you may solve the problem by setting up a series of meetings with your boss. The first meeting occurs when you are starting a project. You want to make sure you have the parameters straight. The second meeting is planned for half-way through the project, to make sure you are on the right track. Finally, there’s one at the end, before the work is passed on. Or, you may suggest that you e-mail a summary of your progress midway through the task and ask your boss to set up a meeting with you if he or she flags a concern.

Step 3. Plan the Conversation.

Ask your boss for a meeting to discuss your performance. Ensure there is enough time for the conversation by asking when the boss has some uninterrupted time to talk to you in private. After you book the meeting, amalgamate steps #1 and #2. Write down the business problem in a short summary. Describe how it affects your work. Outline the solutions to the issue for discussion with your boss. You may be nervous about getting everything on the table or worry that you’ll blow up, so being prepared will help. You may need another meeting or you might reach a solution. Listen to what your boss says and incorporate it into your solutions if need be. You may get feedback that is hard to hear. For example, the boss may confirm that he checks your work because of past errors; he may not take responsibility for changing the task mid-stream or may confirm that your productivity is low and you are slow. This can make you feel even angrier, but sticking to your plan to solve the problem is key. Remember, you need a solution to the issue for your peace of mind and work performance.

Step 4. Follow-up

Summarize your conversation and the next steps in an e-mail or letter. Ensure that you describe what you each decided to do to solve the problem. This may include summarizing a meeting schedule to keep your boss aware of your progress. Or, if you and your boss identified a gap in your knowledge, include the course you’ll take to build up your skills. Perhaps the solution involves working more closely with a co-worker because things were slipping through the cracks. Consider a follow-up meeting a month or so later to discuss your progress.

Avoiding an angry response is a good idea when dealing with a superior. Withdrawing completely, however, is a recipe for continued frustration and upset since nothing will have been resolved and you won’t have the satisfaction of at least trying.

So, don’t get mad, get busy trying to find a solution.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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